Firestone Library, photographed in October 2014
Princeton University Office of Communications

Now, it’s all been done before
It’s all been written in the book
But when there’s 
too much of nothing
Nobody should look. — Bob Dylan, “Too Much of Nothing,” 1967

We return this month, in the waning of a grim and maddening year, to one of the oldest frictions in human learning, which likely predates formal institutions of higher education as we know them: the liberal arts versus the sciences. This may seem somewhat recent to Americans whose Colonial colleges arose from the church, initially those happy-go-lucky Puritans-rebranded-Congregationalists. The image is of unending prayer meetings and biblical recitation, punctuated with a sort of McGuffy’s Reader version of English literature, lightened up by Plato, Plutarch, and other dependable classical standbys, based on the idea that a quickbread recipe must be better if written in Latin. Of course, scientific examples to the contrary abound — at Princeton, John Witherspoon and the 1771 Rittenhouse Orrery is an obvious one — and indeed, hard science benchmarks personified by John Maclean Sr., Joseph HenrySteven Alexander, and Cyrus Fogg Brackett peppered the College’s history even prior to its emergence as a University in 1896. 

And then by the last half of the 20th century we were indeed living in the Nuclear Age, as we called it in deference to the fearsome end of World War II, which may have been a curse, a blessing, or very likely both within their enigmatic wrapping of the Cold War. I suspect we now live in the Genomics Age, probably a fortuitous development as we battle COVID-19 (Thanks, vaccine folks!), but certain to be its own full-blown enigma any day now. So, of course, the liberal arts are undergoing their periodic microexamination in that context, as in, “Gosh, can’t AI deal with all the squishy stuff while we use human beings to pose and solve complex equations? Oh, and conveniently save budget bucks by mothballing a number of pesky non-quant departments like, you know, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, that sorta thing.”

Last year’s virtual version of Princeton had a perfect opportunity to advance this undercutting of our liberal arts tradition in a series called Forward Fest, given the pandemic certainly pointed to the sciences as an immediate salvation. It also served to foreshadow Venture Forward, the recently announced capital campaign, which includes such high-ticket scientific foci as bioengineering, data science, and the environment. Although designed to be groundbreaking in thought, the series was comfortingly familiar in form; it was the time-honored Reunions Alumni-Faculty Forum thrown onto Zoom, spread over 13 sessions across the year. When you do this at Princeton, you end up with various Nobelists (five new ones to pick from this year alone!), MacArthur awardees, and so forth dripping off the screen (even easier to book if they’re trapped in the den with their PC), and indeed, the accumulated wisdom and creativity were overwhelming. And while sessions on breakthrough science advances, such as those above, were powerful (Microsoft president Brad Smith ’81 wasn’t even technically a panelist on the whizbang data science panel, he was the moderator), the overall effect was peculiarly supportive of Princeton’s dogged liberal-arts approach to even astrophysics majors. This holistic studies aura came at two levels:

  1. The Party Line. When the dean of engineering and vice dean of innovation, whose technical domains are in the ascendent, to put it mildly, go out of their way in their remarks to emphasize how much their fields profit from the liberal-arts faculty and study that provides context for their students, you know the word is out. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s true.
  2. The Boots on the Ground. The series, rather than obfuscate the arts and humanities behind emerging technology, turned things up a notch for them, not only by including a full artists’ showcase as one episode (recalling President Tilghman’s famous green-haired students), but featuring some top-notch professors in pivotal roles on a variety of panels. I’d like to focus on three, and as an interesting nuance here in the History Corner, note their departmental backgrounds, which may well jolt your preconceptions of liberal-arts programs at Princeton.

The panel on arts and humanities included a music professor with a side gig, in this case given her new appointment in 2019 in both music and … psychology. Elizabeth Margulis was setting up a Music Cognition Laboratory at Princeton, but still seemed a bit surprised at the variety of curious students who turned up for her courses. This edgy sort of musicology might seem odd for a small department, but in many senses the department only exists because of similar off-the-beaten-track approaches. Seventy-five years after the composition of Old Nassau and 60 years after the founding of the Glee Club, Princeton still had no academic music program — in fact, no music courses. Various snarky observers, myself included, attributed this to the joie de vivre of the Scots Presbyterians, but it took a full-blown 1934 faculty committee to suggest that we go way out on a limb and invite professor Roy Dickinson Welch from Smith … to teach two guest music courses. The over-the-top reaction from the students resulted in his staying permanently, and he and his successor, the great Bach scholar Arthur Mendel, created a cutting-edge department that studied and supported all sorts of developments in the field, creating Perspectives of New Music and acting as a base for avant-garde composers such as Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt *92 and Edward T. Cone, and composer/theorist Peter Westergaard. Professor Margulis should feel at home.

Perhaps most telling of all was the concluding panel in June, which attempted in an hour to smooth many of the strands of the broad-ranging and somewhat idealized conversations of the year. One of the experts to whom the task fell was anthropology professor Laurence Ralph, whose expertise in transnational policing has certainly been front and center given the fallout from the George Floyd case, among an array of others. Stymied at doing on-the-ground research on security at the Olympics, for example, he has been trying out ideas in animated film and graphic novel formats, to see if there are more effective ways to convey some of the complicated truths of community policing. This approach would have fit in perfectly into the lightning emergence of anthropology at Princeton: It was buried somewhere in the powerful economics department until the 1950s, was spun off into a new department along with sociology in 1960, which had by 1970 the largest number of undergrad majors on campus, then on its own as a full-blown department in 1971, focusing on sociocultural and linguistic anthropology. 

The other participant in the finale, professor Eric Gregory, is a twofer in our recall of the rapid midcentury emergence of liberal-arts departments. As an ethicist in religion who spends his higher brain functions considering such conundra as the downside of taking the parable of the Good Samaritan too literally, and its extension to the potential evils of philanthropy, he directly recalls the great Paul Ramsey, the second on board at the religion department in 1944, one of the country’s leading medical ethicists for decades. It may amaze you that the study of religions as human institutions, as opposed to theologically, has only been a thing in the United States since even later than that; the department, begun and nursed along by professor George F. Thomas, was made official in 1945 and didn’t grant a Ph.D. until 1955. Still, it was among the earliest, and led the field in philosophy of religion and history of religion, spreading its alumni among new departments across the country. Meanwhile, Gregory also chaired the Council on the Humanities, legendary classics professor Whitney Oates ’26 *31’s brainchild in 1953 that got the liberal-arts folks together to set up and nurture cross-departmental efforts to increase the oomph of the non-sciences on the University and, more importantly, all the students. It also provided an intriguing model for the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2006 as a thriving hive of creative activity that is not focused on granting specialist degrees like a department, but on the robust creative health of the entire community.

You, the discerning Princeton Curriculum Afficionado, may have assumed that the music, religion, and anthropology departments, being so much a part of the liberal arts fabric of the place — their high course attendance by non-majors in each case preceded their anointing and continues today — have been around forever, but now you know better; none is even a century old, although each is rated highly in the country in its respective discipline. Like the great Library and the Humanities Council, they have become integral aspects to the fabric of the place that have enriched virtually all of us at some point, reflecting a focus on the vagaries and curiosities of a great undergraduate education, attempting to connive the naïve freshman into stretching her wings and finding her own path to the liberating freedom of profound thought and lucid expression. Forward thinking indeed.